A Day In Jail – Changemaking Beyond Traditional Methods

At 7am, my team gets escorted to our mural location. We wait as the first door is shut and locked behind us before the second can be opened into a long corridor. We are in jail today – in the section that holds inmates diagnosed with mental disorders and who are accused of committing a crime. These inmates are in jail prior to their trial. They are being held while they are waiting for adjudication about a charge that is brought against them. Due to their disorders, these inmates are often not as able to help their attorney defend them, and they can end up spending a large amount of time incarcerated as the complex process goes on, even though they have not yet been convicted of any crime. The Mental Health Services have initialized the project to support their efforts to re-integrate their patients into society.


This jail does not have much in common with films, in which inmates with orange jumpsuits sit cold and emotionless with an empty look in their cells. Depending on their condition, inmates have some chores and jobs, like cooking the food or cleaning up the premises. Some inmates take classes and attend programs that help re-integrate them into society. We arrive at the mental health module and take in the patient’s common room. Simple chairs and tables, a TV, and a lonely bookshelf where inmates can spend their very limited free time. Days must be very long and dreadfully boring here. You cannot deny that the environment has a prison-like character. Looking from the common room into the courtyard you are facing gray concrete walls. There is not much natural light entering. This is the place for our mural.

Around 9am, we meet the first inmates. They are excited about the project and very motivated to help. It is something different in their daily routine, and many want to know what is happening in the courtyard. Everyone is very respectful and I think they enjoy painting with us. Some are behaving a little bit strange, are talking to their voices, or are pacing back and forth to deal with the new situation. But there are also patients who I wouldn’t suspect struggling with a mental illness.

While painting, we have time to learn more about life in jail and how the patients struggle with loneliness and isolation. It is nice to listen to the conversations between inmates, and to see how they make new connections. Some patients tell us, that painting makes them feel better. The idea is that art can stabilize them and give them purpose. It is not about training them to create beautiful murals. The project provides a great opportunity to explore and practice social interaction skills. They learn how to set healthy boundaries, and to say no if they don’t feel comfortable with a situation.

At noon, we have lunch at the staff canteen, where inmates prepare and hand out meals under supervision. The therapists and deputies give us some insight into the complexity of their jobs. They have a very narrow legal framework when dealing with mentally ill inmates. Patients have a right to be mentally ill and the right to refuse treatment. But this framework assumes the inmates know that they are ill and are capable of rational decision making. In many cases, people with severe disorders lack insight into their condition. It is a good thought to defend the right of self-determination, but a meaningful exercise of this right requires informed decision making - which may not be possible without proper therapy and medication. The challenge is to differentiate between your own ideas of what makes a good life, and what the patients actually desire. It was clear that the staff cares a lot, and despite these difficulties, they do their best to help the patients be safe, stable, and adjusted for life after jail.

After lunch, we continue working with the inmates and some therapists volunteer with our project to see the patients in a different context. Over the next days, we experience a change in the behavior of the patients. Some have more lively facial expressions and seem to be more present. Some sing and dance at the wall. A patient, who entered the courtyard with very shaking hands, calms down and returns quickly to a state of high-functioning. This may sound very mechanical, but many patients have a very limited attention span and capability because of their mental condition.

At 6pm, after going through the same procedure every day, we leave the way we came in, escorted through the many layers of security. In the light of the setting Fall sun, the building looks peaceful and ordinary. Looking over my shoulder, I realize that this could really work. Our mural is not the traditional method for dealing with mentally ill inmates, but activities like this can stabilize patients and potentially have a positive impact within the correctional system.